Windham to receive honor from Auburn

Published 12:40 am Sunday, March 8, 2009

Kathryn Tucker Windham mastered the art of the visit, a dying Southern tradition, long ago.

She knows a visit must be slow and easy. Like a good stew, there is no rushing it. Pull up a chair, sip on an ice-cold glass of water and let the conversation wander in whatever direction it so desires.

There better be plenty of storytelling, too. During a visit with Windham, stories are never in short supply. She has enough to fill up a library, and she tells each one like it has never been told before. She knows just how to gradually build it up. When the time is just right, she burns that lasting image into the memory-flying in an airplane with a wind-up propeller or listening to voting rights activists sing freedom songs. Then, she turns her head, flashes a smile and nods her head, just to make sure it stuck.

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She learned to spin stories on front porches and honed the craft writing for newspapers and books.

Auburn University is recognizing Windham’s career in journalism with the Distinguished Special Achievement in Journalism award April 24 at Saugahatchee Country Club. Windham is one of five honorees to be presented awards by the Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council.

The other four awardees are syndicated columnist-author Rheta Grimsley Johnson, 2009 Distinguished AU Journalism Alumnus; Goodloe Sutton and his late wife Jean, Distinguished Alabama Community Journalists; Shannon J. Allen, Distinguished Alabama Community Sports Journalist; and John Logue, Distinguished Mass Media Achievement.

The AU Journalism Advisory Council established these awards five years ago to “recognize and celebrate the best and most enduring professionals in our field, both in our state and those outside it with Alabama roots,” said Honors committee chair Roy Bain.

Windham brushes off the idea of awards like a speck of dirt from her backyard vegetable garden.

“If you live long enough, you get honored,” the 90-year-old said. “People start thinking you might not be around much longer.”

Windham began her newspaper career as a 12-year-old, working for her cousin’s weekly as a movie reviewer. That career nearly ended, though, when she applied for a job right out of Huntingdon College at the Alabama Journal in Montgomery. The city editor simply did not want a female reporter in his newsroom.

But the war came, the Journal’s regular police beat reporter left and the newspaper notified Windham by telegraph that the she would be admitted to the newsroom as a hard news reporter, instead of a society maven.

It was while Windham hustled on that beat for $15 a week and all the copy paper she could fill with reports of the day that she met one of the most interesting people she ever covered, Billie Jean.

Windham said Billie Jean could not stay out of trouble with the law. The jail might as well have installed a revolving door for her.

“She was the most interesting character I think I ever had close contact with,” she said. “If I couldn’t find anything else to write about I’d go interview Billie Jean.”

Between tales of Billie Jean’s escapades, even a faked death announcement out of Chicago, Windham pounded away at the keys of a manual typewriter and at the barriers thrown up by male law enforcement officers. She covered them all, including the drowning deaths of two little girls, where Windham had to guard the bodies until the police came back with equipment to properly extract them from the water. That bravery in the face of death and decomposition in the dark earned Windham the respect of law officers, just as her telling of the story won her readers the next day.

Windham recalls those days as a police reporter with fondness.

“I’ve always wanted to go back to being a police reporter,” she said.

After a stint selling war bonds in the 1940s, and later, working for The Birmingham News, Windham moved back to Selma at the height of the voting rights struggle. She witnessed marches, snapped photographs of Sheriff Jim Clark and heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak.

“I saw him standing on the corner eating fried chicken,” she said. “It was a drumstick.”

Windham walked a fine line during these days. She had friends, black and white, who did right and wrong. She knows all the words to the freedom songs and attended a church guarded by a man armed with a shotgun. She worked the beat just as she had ground out every story in the years prior — shoe leather and straightforward writing.

“I went down to the courthouse everyday just in case something happened,” she said.

Many things have changed in four decades, the newspaper industry especially, she said.

“It’s just changed so that I can’t know exactly where the breaking point was,” she said.

Windham said she is pessimistic about the future of daily newspapers, but she said a daily newsroom is the best training ground for a young writer.

“You learn to write under pressure,” she said. “And you better get it right.”

The lessons of cranking copy paper into the manual typewriter and having a city editor rip them from her a paragraph at a time honed her storytelling skills – get it and get it right.

Windham got it right for 70 years. Although she no longer stalks the politicians or police, Windham still influences journalism by visiting with those who practice the craft, adding her two cents worth about the strengths and weaknesses of a particular newspaper. She loves the world of news gathering, reporting and writing, sometimes allowing a little envy to creep into her voice when talking with those who continue to work in the field.

And this she offers younger reporters and editors:

“If you get satisfied with what you’re doing, that’s the end of it.”